Some scripture passages in the Bible seem to suggest that Jesus Christ is subordinate to God the Father, not equal with Him. Let’s consider several of them. [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version (NKJV) of the Bible, unless noted otherwise.]
1. In John 14:28b, Jesus Christ specifically tells His disciples that God the Father is greater than Himself: “If you loved Me, you would rejoice because I said, ‘I am going to the Father,’ for My Father is greater than I.”
With regard to the first part of this passage, Matthew Henry’s Commentary says, “His [i.e., Jesus Christ’s] state with his Father would be much more excellent and glorious than his present state; his returning to his Father . . . would be the advancing of him to a much higher condition than that which he was now in.”
A footnote in the New International Version (NIV) Bible indicates that the second part of the passage reveals “the subordinate role Jesus accepted as a necessary part of the incarnation.”
Together, these two explanations infer that Jesus Christ would be equal with God the Father, not subordinate to Him, when Christ returned to the Father, after having fulfilled His mission to live a sinless life on Earth and die on the cross as a perfect sacrifice for the sins of everyone who accepts Him as their Savior.
Philippians 2:6-7 supports this conclusion. This passage states that Christ “being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men.” In other words, when in his supernatural state, Jesus Christ regarded Himself as equal with God the Father, but as a human being, He subordinated Himself to God the Father.
A somewhat different perspective is provided by Norman Geisler, Ph.D., and Thomas Howe, M.A., in their book entitled When Critics Ask. On page 420 of the book, they explain John 14:28b, as follows:
The Father is greater than the Son by office, but not by nature, since both are God (see John 1:1; 8:58: 10:30). Just as an earthly father is equally human with, but holds a higher office than, his son, even so the Father and the Son in the trinity are equal in essence, but different in function. In like manner, we speak of the president of our country as being a greater man, not by virtue of hischaracter, but by virtue of his position. Therefore, Jesus cannot ever be said to say that He considered Himself anything less than God by nature.
In other words, Geisler and Howe seem to be saying that in terms of who Jesus Christ is (i.e., His nature, essence, and character), He is equal with God the Father, but in terms of His role as the incarnate Son (i.e., His office, function, and position), Jesus Christ was subordinate to God the Father. This is consistent with the explanations provided by the other sources we noted.
2. In John 17:3, Christ proclaims in His prayer to God the Father that God the Father is “the only true God,” which seems to infer that Christ is not God: “[T]his is eternal life, that they [i.e., humans] may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”
In explaining this verse, Matthew Henry’s Commentary states,
God is here called the only true God, to distinguish him from the false gods of the heathen, which were counterfeit and pretenders, not from the person of the Son, of whom it is expressly said that he is the true God and eternal life (1 John 5:20). . . .
Likewise, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary says, “Eternal life consists of a growing knowledge of the only true God, as opposed to false gods.”
Both of these commentaries indicate that the distinction Christ is making is not between God the Father and Himself, but rather between God the Father and false gods.
3. John 17:22-23 seems to imply in Christ’s prayer to God the Father that when He refers to being “one” with God the Father, He means being united in purpose: “[T]he glory which You gave Me I have given them [Christ’s apostles], that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one . . . .”
In this scripture passage, being “one” apparently does mean being united in purpose. However, while Christ’s apostles can be “one” with God the Father in this regard, Jesus Christ is “one” with God the Father in every regard.
4. The second part of John 20:17 raises a question as to whether or not Jesus Christ is equal with God the Father, since Jesus tells Mary Magdalene that God the Father is not only His Father, but also His God: “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’”
In this regard, Matthew Henry’s Commentary says, “Christ’s Father is our Father; and, he partaking of the human nature, our God is his God.” In other words, Christ was acknowledging that, as a human being, He, like all of humanity, was subservient to God the Father.
5. Another scripture passage that seems to indicate that God the Father is superior to Jesus Christ is 1 Corinthians 11:3, in which Paul asserts, “I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”
With regard to this verse, the KJV Bible Commentary states,
It is important here to note that the concept of headship does not connote qualitative or essential difference. It connotes a functional subordination. The prototype is seen in the persons of the Trinity. The Father and Christ are co-equal, yet the Son is answerable to the Father (cf. Jn 6:38–40 10:29–30; 14:9; I Cor 15:28; and Phil 2:6).
Like the previous explanations of other scripture passages, this one seems to indicate that it was only in His role as the incarnate Son that Jesus Christ was subordinate to God the Father.
6. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:28b that Jesus Christ will be subordinate to God the Father: “[T]he Son [i.e., Jesus Christ] Himself will also be subject to Him [i.e., God the Father] who put all things under Him [i.e., Jesus Christ], that God may be all in all.”
A footnote in the NIV Bible provides the following perspective regarding this passage:
The Son will be made subject to the Father in the sense that administratively, after he subjects all things to his power, he will then turn it all over to God the Father, the administrative head. This is not to suggest that the Son is in any way inferior to the Father. . . . The subordination referred to is one of function. . . . The Father is supreme in the Trinity; the Son carries out the Father’s will. . . .
Likewise, in regard to the statement that the Son (i.e., Jesus Christ) will be subject to God the Father, the NIV Bible Commentary states,
This is a difficult expression and has often been misunderstood to suggest that the apostle subordinated the Son to the Father. However, two facts must be accounted for here. First, when Paul says that the Son is subject to the Father he is not speaking of the Son in terms of his essence, but in terms of his function, or ministry, as the incarnate Son. Second, the force of Paul’s statement is best understood dispensationally. At this present time the administration of the messianic kingdom is given to the Son (cf. Mt 28:18). However, at the conclusion of the messianic kingdom this function will be returned to the triune God that God may be all in all.
A more concise and perhaps easier to understand explanation of the meaning of the same passage is provided by The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, which says, “The subjection . . . is not that of the Son as Son, but as the incarnate Son.” In other words, when Christ assumed the form of a human, He, like all other humans, was subject to God the Father. When Christ is in His supernatural state, He is equal with God the Father, not subject to Him.
7. Regarding Jesus Christ as equal with God seems to be a violation of the Commandment found in Exodus 20:3, which declares, “You shall have no other gods before Me.”
One of the reasons why regarding Jesus Christ as equal with God is not a violation of the Commandment is that the New Testament of the Bible teaches that God has revealed Himself in three different persons or beings: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In other words, Jesus Christ (the Son) is not another God; He is one of the three forms by which God manifests Himself. [For a more thorough discussion of the triune nature of God, click on “Do Christians Worship Three Gods?”]
Furthermore, Colossians 1:19 infers that Jesus Christ is equal with God. The NKJV Bible translation of this verse states, “For it pleased the Father that in Him [i.e., Jesus Christ] all the fullness should dwell.” Likewise, the NIV Bible translation says, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [i.e., Jesus Christ].” With regard to this verse, a footnote in the NIV Bible explains, “For Paul, ‘fullness’ meant the totality of God with all his powers and attributes.”
Colossians 2:9 provides a similar perspective. The NKJV Bible translation of this verse states, “For in Him [i.e., Jesus Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” The NIV Bible translation says, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.”
Both of these last two scripture passages indicate that exactly the same powers and attributes that are possessed by God the Father are also possessed by Jesus Christ, at least in His supernatural state.
We believe the preceding considerations support the position that in Jesus Christ’s human form, He was subordinate to God the Father, but that in His innate supernatural state, Jesus Christ is equal with God the Father.
[The issue of whether or not every person – both Christians and non-Christians – has an eternal spirit that continues to exist after the death of the person’s physical body is addressed in the appendix that follows.]
In His Human Form, Was Jesus Christ Fully God?
Many Christians believe that Jesus Christ was fully (or all) God and fully (or all) man during His incarnation on the earth, although the Bible makes no such statement. This belief is called “hypostatic union” and is believed to have originated during the Council of Chalcedon in the middle of the fifth century A.D. But, is this belief correct?
In actuality, the Council of Chalcedon did not conclude that Jesus Christ was fully (or all) God and fully (or all) man. Instead, the Council concluded that Jesus Christ was truly God and truly man. And, there is a significance difference in meaning between the term fully and the term truly. According to Webster’s Dictionary, fully means “to the full, completely, entirely, thoroughly,” whereas truly means “accurately, genuinely, faithfully, factually, really, rightfully, or legally.”
Therefore, there is a meaningful difference between saying that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man rather than saying that He was truly God and truly man. Saying that Jesus, in His human form, was fully God and fully man indicates that Jesus had all the characteristics of both God and man. In contrast, saying that Jesus, in His human form, was truly God and truly man indicates that Jesus was genuinely both God and man, but this does not mean that he had all the characteristics of both God and man while He was in human form. In fact, the Bible makes it sufficiently clear that Jesus temporarily divested or suspended some of His characteristics or abilities as God, so that He could do what was necessary to be the Savior of every person who sincerely trusts in Him for eternal salvation.
Furthermore, Jesus could not have had all the characteristics of both God and man at the same time, because some of the characteristics are mutually exclusive. Consider the following two examples.
If Jesus had remained fully God, He would have been incapable of sinning, so it was necessary for Jesus as a man to be able to sin to enable Him to fully experience the temptations faced by humans (see Hebrews 2:18; 4:15). In other words, if the incarnate Jesus had remained fully God, He would not have been tempted to sin, whereas as a man, He was tempted as we are, but He resisted the temptations and did not sin. Also, if Jesus had remained fully God, He would have been incapable of dying, but it was necessary for Him as a man to die as a perfect (i.e., sinless) sacrifice to atone for the sins of everyone who has genuine faith in Him.
Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that, in His human form, Jesus Christ was truly God, rather than fully God, whereas in His pre-incarnate form and after His resurrection, He was fully God.